A local resident, who I’ll refer to as Mario, recently asked me to look over his immigration file. After paying a lawyer more than $20K across five years, an immigration judge in Denver administratively closed his case, which essentially pulls his case off the court’s docket.
“What does that mean?" Mario asked.
“That your case is a low priority,” I told him. “And for now, the court isn’t going to pursue it. But it doesn’t mean they can’t in the future.”
Mario was confused. He fled Mexico in 2018 after local police, who worked for a drug cartel, tried to steal his truck. He spent weeks in prison simply because he tried to protect what was his. Then, after he got out, the cartel threatened to kill him. Had he stayed, he’d be dead. And yet, his lawyer felt that his best chance in court was to request that the judge close his case because if it went to trial, he’d likely lose.
And he wasn’t wrong.
Despite extreme violence across the country, migrants from Mexico are among the groups least likely to be granted asylum by U.S. immigration judges. I sense this anomaly is largely due to the dehumanization of Mexican nationals within broader U.S. culture. In fact, given the brutal nature of violence across Mexico, it’s the only feasible explanation.
Since 2007, when then-president Felipe Calderón used generous gifts from the U.S. government to wage war on drug traffickers, more than 430,000 people have been killed. Another 100,000 have disappeared altogether. Among the dead are dozens of Mexican journalists who have been gunned down and scores of politicians who have been assassinated.
According to Human Rights Watch, violent crime levels in Mexico are at all-time highs, and instead of law enforcement helping to control it, “soldiers, police, and prosecutors have committed serious, widespread human rights violations, including torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, with near total impunity.”
Mario told me: “That’s why I left. It was clear that authorities couldn’t protect me.”
Disappearances in Mexico are so prevalent that people across the country have begun looking for their loved ones on their own. Colloquially known as “subuesos” or “bloodhounds,” these human trackers have taken it upon themselves to unearth the dead.
I first learned of such collectives in 2022. I was planning a research visit to the small town of Salvatierra, Guanajuato, when one of my contacts told me that I’d be wise to postpone my trip.
“Why?” I asked.
“Authorities just discovered a mass grave on an abandoned lot in town with at least 70 bodies,” he told me. “I’d recommend waiting until things cool down.”
I heeded his advice and started reading about the groups of largely female trackers who were behind hundreds of similarly gruesome discoveries across the county. Many were from central Mexico, where I’ve spent years interviewing migrants and their families. Their stories were both unsettling and common.
And yet, despite fleeing a country where mothers, daughters and sisters spend countless hours searching for their dead family members, Mexican nationals like Mario can’t seem to convince immigration judges that their fears of persecution are real.
Mexicans are by far the largest migrant group in the U.S., and every year, they are among the top 10 nationalities to file asylum. Still, they’re rarely granted asylum. In fact, migrants from Venezuela, China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Egypt and India are all granted asylum more frequently than Mexican nationals.
It’s really quite simple. U.S. culture has largely dehumanized Mexican nationals and in doing so, has facilitated a legal culture that undervalues the lived experiences of immigrants like Mario and his family.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.